Vermonters in need can no longer call 2-1-1 after hours to get help accessing emergency housing or other social services following sharp cutbacks to the program.
As of October 1, the previously 24-7 hotline has pared back its hours to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Advocates fear the cut will leave people with few options at times they need help the most.
"This is another example of the state deciding to stop providing services to some of the most vulnerable Vermonters,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
The move follows similar cutbacks to court programs for domestic violence victims in Lamoille and Washington counties, which Tronsgard-Scott said have been discussed for years but occurred recently with little warning.
The changes have blindsided some groups and forced them to scramble for better ways to get people help after hours.
“To my knowledge, the services agencies in Chittenden County had no prior notice that the changes were going to be that drastic,” said Amanda Rohdenburg, associate director of Outright Vermont, a Burlington-based group supporting LGBT youth statewide.
From the vermont211.org site
Vermont 2-1-1 is a program of the United Way of Vermont, established in 2005 to give residents a single, easy-to-remember number to get information about and referrals to social services in times of crisis. This includes help with emergency housing, paying utility bills and legal services.
An organization in Indiana actually handled the after hours calls. It couldn't continue, and Vermont wouldn't provide sufficient funds for the service in-state, said MaryEllen Mendl, executive director of the program. She said she was forced to scale back hours.
“When we said we needed more money to be able to continue to manage the program after hours, they said no,” Mendl said.
More than half of the program’s $900,000 budget comes from the state.
The program employs a handful of phone operators in Essex Junction. The service was initially available only until 4:30 p.m. In 2007, the hotline went 24-7 after winning a contract from the state Agency of Human Services to provide after-hours housing placement.
The after-8 p.m. function has been outsourced to similar organizations in Maine and Indiana ever since. But the Indiana 2-1-1 organization was “losing their shirt” on the $45,000 contract and earlier this year warned it could not continue, Mendl said.
A bid for the work from a 2-1-1 call center in Nevada came in at over $200,000, and estimates to expand the call center in Vermont were closer to $300,000, she said. State officials have been aware of the funding issues since the beginning of the year, but declined to boost the budget to retain the service, Mendl said.
After-hours contacts represent 42 percent of the approximately 41,000 calls and texts Vermont 2-1-1 fielded in 2018.
In many cases, however, the late hour made it a challenge to resolve issues, said Candace Morgan, a spokesperson for the Agency of Human Services. When people needed emergency housing, for instance, motels often wouldn’t accept referrals after 11 p.m.
Similarly, calls for tax assistance fielded in the wee hours could only be resolved when the tax services organizations operate, she said. The state is working with service providers to minimize impacts on people who need services, Morgan said.
Tronsgard-Scott said the situation remains "fluid," but the lack of communication leaves organizations like hers scrambling unnecessarily. “It’s another example of systems in the state that just seem to be ending with very little notice, and that puts people at risk,” she said.
Rohdenburg said the elimination by the state of yet another service for people who are survivors of abuse represents a worrisome trend. “It seems as though this is the second time this year that the state has cut services, especially for survivors, and are really expecting community service providers to pick up the slack,” she said.
Correction, October 7, 2019: The Agency of Human Services did not make a request for additional 2-1-1 funds. An earlier version of this story contained an error.